Three J.P. Morgan precious metals traders charged as criminal probe continues

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Federal prosecutors on Monday accused three J.P. Morgan precious metals traders, including the global head of base and precious metals trading, of participating in a racketeering conspiracy in connection with a multiyear scheme to manipulate the markets and defraud customers.

The alleged scheme saw the nation’s largest bank by assets profit handsomely, while investors suffered losses.

“We believe we will be able to prove that there are millions of dollars in profits [for the] bank and tens of millions of dollars of losses,” Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski said in a media call on Monday.

Named in the indictment were Michael Nowak, a managing director at J.P. Morgan who also heads the firm’s global precious metals desk, along with Gregg Smith and Christopher Jordan, who both held the title executive director and were traders on the firm’s precious metals desk while employed at J.P. Morgan. They each were charged with one count of conspiracy under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, as well as other federal crimes in connection with manipulating precious metals futures markets.

“It’s truly regrettable that the DOJ decided to go forward with a prosecution of Mike Nowak, who has done nothing wrong. We look forward to representing him at trial and expect him to be fully exonerated,” said Mike Nowak’s counsel, David Meister and Jocelyn Strauber of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.

Unsealed on Monday morning, the indictment alleges that from May 2008 to August 2016 the defendants along with co-conspirators, engaged in widespread spoofing, market manipulation and fraud while working on the precious metals desk at J.P. Morgan. Spoofing involves placing orders these defendants allegedly intended to cancel before they could be executed, which would benefit other trades. Federal prosecutors say the scheme ran over an eight-year period and involved thousands of unlawful trading sequences.

Nowak. 45, of Montclair, N.J., has worked for J.P. Morgan since July 1996 and was put on leave by J.P. Morgan in August. Smith, 55, of Scarsdale, N.Y,, has worked J.P. Morgan since May 2008 when the firm acquired Bear Stearns. Smith also was put on leave by the firm before the indictment was unsealed.

Jordan, 47, of Mountainside, N.J., worked at J.P. Morgan as an executive director and trader on the precious metals desk from 2006 to Dec. 2009. Jordan then was employed as a precious metals trader by Credit Suisse, followed by financial services company First New York Securities, according to his LinkedIn profile.

The alleged misconduct that resulted in the indictments were a result of the agency’s use of big data and analysis, as well as the information received from other cooperating witnesses, Benczkowski said.

In the past year, two other former precious traders at J.P. Morgan, John Edmonds and Christian Trunz, have pleaded guilty to spoofing-related charges. And Corey Flaum, who worked with Gregg Smith at Bear Stearns, pleaded guilty in July.

“One of my initiatives in the criminal division is to expand our use of big data,” Benczkowski said. The Justice Department plans to continue to use the data technology as part of the ongoing criminal investigation, as well as, to look at other financial products and trading behaviors at desks in other financial institutions.

The Justice Department’s investigation into J.P. Morgan, which runs one of the world’s largest precious metals businesses through its Global Commodities Group, is ongoing.

“We are continuing to follow the facts where they lead,” Benczkowski said.

When asked whether the Justice Department will seek for J.P. Morgan to disgorge profits and repay investors for losses, Benczkowski said “the bank is involved in discussions with the Justice Department and I think those questions will be part our ongoing discussions with the bank”

As it relates to the RICO conspiracy charge, federal prosecutors allege that the defendants and their co-conspirators on J.P. Morgan’s precious metals desk were members of an enterprise and conducted the affairs of the desk through a pattern of racketeering activity.

“This is not a new use of RICO and is one that I think is entirely appropriate,” Benczkowski said.

All three men are expected to make initial appearances today. Nowak at 2:30 PM ET at Federal Court in Newark, N.J. Jordan will also be in the District Court of New Jersey, and Smith in the Southern District of New York, according to the Justice Department officials.

J.P. Morgan declined to comment on the story but has disclosed in regulatory filings that the firm is being investigated by various authorities, including the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division, relating to trading practices in the precious metals markets. The firm said it is cooperating with the investigations.

The Justice Department is conducting multiple criminal investigations into big banks with the cooperation of traders who have pleaded guilty to spoofing-related crimes.

In the past five years, federal prosecutors have brought a total of 13 spoofing cases against 19 defendants.

“We are continuing to follow the facts wherever they lead,” Benczkowski said. Adding that the indictments today are not the end of the Justice Department’s investigation into J.P. Morgan.

Regulator brings civil charges against Nowak and Smith

In a related civil enforcement action, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission also announced charges against Nowak and Smith for spoofing, engaging in a manipulative and deceptive scheme, and attempting to manipulate prices in the precious metals futures market.

According to the complaint, Nowak, who supervised Smith and others on J.P. Morgan’s precious metals desk, placed thousands of spoof orders in the precious metals futures markets and was also aware that Smith, along with other traders were spoofing.

Smith, who prosecutors also say placed thousands of spoof orders, also taught other traders at J.P. Morgan and Bear Stearns how to spoof, the complaint alleges.

This case was brought in connection with the CFTC Division of Enforcement’s Spoofing Task Force and seeks, among other relief, civil monetary penalties, disgorgement, restitution, trading bans and a permanent injunction against future violations of the federal commodities law.

“I don’t think that one should look at the charges today as the end of the investigation, ” CFTC Director of Enforcement James McDonald said.

The CFTC also announced on Monday it settled charges against former J.P. Morgan precious metals trader Christian Trunz.

The order finds that Trunz and others at the banks placed futures orders they intended to cancel before execution, to induce other market participants to trade against the orders Trunz and others at the banks wanted filled.

The order also finds that Trunz learned the trading strategy of spoofing from more senior traders at the banks and deployed this strategy with the knowledge and consent of his immediate supervisors. As part of his settlement, Trunz has agreed to serve as a cooperating witness in the ongoing investigation.

With reporting from Jim Forkin.

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